Pierre Schaeffer & Pierre Henry : Musique Concrète

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Before Trevor Horn sampled a sound, or Run-DMC scratched a record; when synthesizers were a twinkle in the imagination of Varese and Cage, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry were transmuting the world of sound. In the mid-'60s, their techniques were arcane: by the early '80s they were nouveau-chic. But in 1948, they were truly revolutionary.
"Our direction was to turn our back on music and that is crucial," proclaimed Schaeffer in his elegant, old Paris apartment. "People who try to create a musical revolution do not have a chance, but those who turn their back to music can sometimes find it."

Shortly alter World War II and shortly before the widespread use of magnetic tape (developed in Germany), Schaeffer and Henry began their revolt by recording sounds from the natural world onto phonograph discs, altering them through the primitive means available, and creating an alarming music that they dubbed musique concrète (pronounced: muzeek kon-kret), or concrete music.

Think of The Art of Noise without a rhythm box and you have a rough approximation of the first masterpiece of musique concrète, Symphonie Pour Un Homme Seul (Symphony for a Man Alone), Schaeffer and Henry created audio portraits for the end of the machine age and the beginning of the electronic age that burst with mechanical noises, orchestral hits, trains, and text-sound babble. Doors open and close on indecipherable conversations; engines start, stop and transform into screams and moans; disembodied pianists jam with mouth noise rhythm sections. Now, almost 40 years later, the scratches on the records they used give this vanguard work a charming, antique quality.

schaeffer_2Their studios in the '50s and '60s were hotspots of experimentation. They formed the ORTF (French Radio) Experimental Studio in the '50s, and in 1960 Henry founded the studio APSOME and Schaeffer founded the Groupe De Recherches Musicales. Among his many students was French synthesist Jean-Michel Jarre, who regards Schaeffer as a mentor. "He was very important in my life," claims Jarre, "because he was the first man to consider music in terms of sound and not notes, harmonies, and chords."

Schaeffer despised the trends of classical music in the 20th Century, still embroiled in the 12-tone and serialist methods of Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples. "This made for a century," exclaims Schaeffer, "of the most boring music. Schoenberg, a teacher lacking genius, had a 'brilliant' idea. One was supposed to use all 12 notes without repeating any. One is sure in this way to avoid the problems of tonality and to avoid copying Mahler's music.

"Unfortunately," he continues, "when you suppress the intervals between notes you suppress music. You make it insignificant. You take the feeling, the intelligence, and meaning away."

It was Schaeffer who first developed the ideas of musique concrète. Though he was born into a musical family in 1910, his parents forbade him to study music. Instead he went to the Ecole Polytechnic (the French equivalent of MIT), and studied electronics, eventually winding up as an engineer on French radio. During World War II, he was an operator for the French Resistance Radio Network.

schaeffer_3Schaeffer's method of returning meaning and emotion to music was to go into the world and the sound effects library of his radio studio. "I was actually concerned with the possibilities of radio art," he recalls. In the process, he became more interested in his sound effects for radio plays rather than the dramas themselves. "From the moment you accumulate sounds and noises, deprived of their dramatic connotations, you cannot help but make music," he insists.

Using disk lathes, Schaeffer went to locales like the Batignolle Railway Station and etched the rumble of trains into the record's grooves. "I was attracted to external events and impressive machines," he states with a grand sweep of his cigarette. "It was an emotional experience because the railroad carries many memories, many psychological and psychosomatic feelings. Sometimes these feelings can be very violent, deeply rooted in your childhood."

Unlike the earlier Futurist work of Russolo, Schaeffer wanted to remove the original meanings and definitions of his sounds and create a deeper psychological-emotional response. In works such as Etude aux Chemins de Fer (Etude on Railroads), Etude Pathetique (Etude on Pathos), and Etude aux Objets (Etude on Objects), the sounds were familiar, but rearranged into bizarre juxtapositions, in the surrealist style of the era. The techniques of speeding up, slowing down, reversing, editing, and looping were all used to create sonic "collages," as Schaeffer calls them, all before the advent of tape recorders, let alone digital samplers.

After recording their sounds, they went back into the studio and isolated them, re-recording them onto other disks with different manipulations, including what they called "the locked groove:" putting an intentional skip in the record so a sound would be repeated, not unlike a tape loop or sequencer. Schaeffer describes the recording process. "We would have seven or eight turntables playing together, but with only one sound playing on each. Then we would try different variations, montages with let's say, sound 'A' repeated twice, then a sound 'B' then 'C' repeated and so on. It was similar to an orchestra rehearsal where you would be trying different themes, different variations."

Schaeffer has the air of a French aristocrat, dabbling with sound as a philosophical exercise. Pierre Henry, on the other hand, is a classically trained musician and composer who diverged from the traditional route to join in Schaeffer's experiments in 1949. Henry is restrained and self-absorbed, convinced that he is on the only true musical path. Henry and Schaeffer's relationship has been turbulent. They are reputed to have broken up in a violent fight in the '60s, only resuming their friendship a few years ago. Now Schaeffer, who has since stopped composing, gives much of the credit for their music to Henry. Henry, on the other hand, sat silently during Schaeffer's interview and demanded his own session.

By 1951, they had tape recorders, a medium in which Henry still works almost exclusively. His studio contains a mixing console, two 8-tracks, several 2-track Studers, and rooms full of reel-to-reel tapes of raw sounds. He now calls his work "electro-acoustic music." Both he and Schaeffer are disdainful of the electronic music that in many ways they helped spawn. "It is important to understand that there is no use of electronically generated sounds in our music," says Schaeffer. "It is concerned with the acoustics of recorded natural sounds on which we then have the power of transformation."

These statements aren't entirely true, however. Synthesizers appear on Schaeffer's 1978 Etude aux Sons Animes (Etude on Animated Sounds) and sitting unobtrusively next to Henry's mixing console is an analog synthesizer. "It is just a decoration," he says with a conspiratorial grin to his aide and translator. "It is not wired in. I do not use it, but it could happen."

Henry can appear like an "electro-acoustic" snob, but he has also been willing to place his work in a more pop context. In 1969, he added electronic scribbles to the British hard rock of Spooky Tooth's Ceremony, and in 1967 collaborated with French rocker Michel Colombier on Mass For Today. Most recently, he worked with French avant-gardist Gilbert (Lard Free, Urban Sax) Artman.

Yet he considers himself part of the traditional classical music stream. He studied at the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique in Paris, and with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen. "I am still a traditional composer," he insists. "It is not the recording of the sound that made me different."

Henry tends towards manipulations of musical instruments rather than natural sound. "In the Symphonie Pour Un Homme Seul all the instrumental parts, piano, percussion, were played by myself," he boasts. "It was a music that I played and then, only afterwards was this music fragmented, elaborated upon, using the techniques of the time. I was also experimenting at the time with objects, noises, anything you could create inside the studio, noise from composed objects, invented objects."

Their compositions sought a musical language that fell between natural sounds and instrumental ones. They wanted the sounds to stand apart from their original context, yet have the musical values and complexity of instruments. So a door wasn't a door, but a scraping wipe across a bleak landscape. A violin no longer played scales, but a descending drone into a personal hell.

schaeffer_4"Music has to do with sounds," explains Schaeffer, "so we need to find them somewhere and it is preferred to find musical ones. You have two sources for sounds: noises, which always tell you something-a door cracking, a dog barking, the thunder, the storm; and then you have instruments. An instrument tells you, la-la-la-la (sings a scale). Music has to find a passage between noises and instruments. It has to escape. It has to find a compromise and an evasion at the same time; something that would not be dramatic because that has no interest to us, but something that would be more interesting than sounds like Do-Re-Mi-Fa..."

Works like his Masquerage (1952) and Henry's Well-Tempered Microphone (1951) were far removed from conventional musical scales or language. In the latter work, Henry prepared a piano a la Cage and used different miking placements to generate a discordant orchestra. Remember that this was the early 1950s, and even the microphone was still a recent and relatively unexplored development.

"In the Well-Tempered Microphone," relates Henry, 'the idea was to show all the resources of the microphone and of the instrument. By using the microphone for your recording, you could go further than with the instrument itself. The microphone could amplify and magnify the effect of the instrument and, if combined with other little acoustical transformations possible at that time, it could make this effect more magic." Some of these performances would fit nicely into Looney Toons cartoons. The piano works in particular, like Concerto Des Ambiguites, have the effect of Cecil Taylor on helium. At their best, they succeeded in removing expectations and preconceptions from music, allowing newer thoughts and feelings to prevail.

Schaeffer seized upon a fire engine squealing past his Paris apartment to illustrate their philosophy. "Let us use the example of the fire engine," he exclaimed. 'What we are hearing is a musical third, a woodwind instrument, which is here a horn, and finally the siren itself. What the locked groove allows you to do is to conceal the fact that it is a fire truck, to forget that it is a musical third and it allows you to make the instrument sound like another instrument."

Although Henry worked sparingly with electronics on early compositions like Haut Voltage (1955), his best work bends acoustic material into seemingly synthesized designs. Le Voyage (1961-62) is a timbrally rich and varied excursion based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, with only violins and voice as its principal sound sources. "There was absolutely no electronically generated sound on Le Voyage," Henry insisted indignantly. "Le Voyage was a continuation of the experiments of the '60s, but it was done in a new studio. I think that people should consider me as a creator of music and sounds who worked in different studios that he personally designed. So if there is a difference between Le Voyage and Haut Voltage for instance, it was mostly due to the studio where I was working. The sound depends on the studio where you work."

The sound also depends upon the stage where you present the work. While Schaeffer's and Henry's first compositions were designed for radio concerts, their music caught the fancy of many choreographers and playwrights, chief among them, Maurice Bejart, with whom Henry has had a continuous relationship since the '50s. Their collaborations, including Haut Voltage, Le Voyage, Mass For Today, and Variations for a Door and a Sigh, brought Henry's music onto the concert stage where he would sit among his mixers, filters, and tape recorders, performing live mixes and manipulations of his tapes, not unlike Stockhausen working his potentiometers or Brian Eno, who processed Phil Manzanera's guitar solos with Roxy Music.

schaeffer_5In the '70s, Henry staged expansive works for the concert hall like The Second Symphony, which was "composed for a circular space, the Cirque d'Hiver," Henry explains. "It was a work for a 16-track recording, which was very ambitious for the time; we used eight stereo tape recorders, wired together and about 100 loudspeakers that would diffuse the sound circularly. People would feel immersed and surrounded by the music." It makes you wish quadraphonic sound had caught on.

In a more recent work, Futuriste (1980), Henry channels his sound through a variety of acoustic spaces placed on the stage. He had room-sized boxes filled with speakers, bathtubs, old tanks, basins and pipes, all lending their own peculiar resonance to Henry's prerecorded scores. "It was a work of acoustic and electric diffusion," he proudly proclaims. "For me it was the best definition of an electro-acoustic concert. It was at the same time vibrant, live, and on tape."

Curiously, some regard these vanguard artists as anachronistic in the context of new music in general, and the French avant-garde in particular. Composers associated with Pierre Boulez's Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) in Paris, are reputed to snipe at Henry and Schaeffer like they were doddering old tinkerers. For their part, Henry and Schaeffer take any opportunity to lampoon the high-tech computer music of IRCAM.

Schaeffer relates a Pierre Boulez story from the 1950s, illuminating the schism in French music circles. "One day we had the visit of a young and unknown musician, Pierre Boulez. At the time, I was involved in trying to create a solfege that could include many sounds and timbres. I thought we should classify the sounds in terms of their effect on the listener, of their psychological effect. We would classify them in high, low, hard, harsh sounds. Boulez objected to that. He refused to collaborate and left after composing one piece, as boring as usual, with one single sound (Etudes, 1952)."

Of course, with the sophisticated computers at IRCAM, like the 4X Real Time Digital Computer, Boulez and his disciples are able to work at a subtler, almost sub-atomic level of musical sound and structure than Henry and Schaeffer ever could.

Schaeffer, who has spent the last ten years composing philosophical treatises on the state of the world, relates to high technology the way people probably related to his own work when he began in 1948. "I am convinced that synthetic music, so fashionable today, is making a mistake feeding the ear with synthetic sounds. We need to come back to that."

Schaeffer may get his wish with the abundance of digital samplers on the market, taking sounds from the acoustic world with their harmonically richer structures, and manipulating them into new shapes. Yet, when queried about it, neither Schaeffer nor Henry seemed very interested in the new technology. But embracement of new technology isn't really the point. Technique ultimately is not music. Henry's methods may be archaic by contemporary standards, but the resulting music is powerfully evocative by any standards. Popular artist Bill Nelson records his personal music this way, claiming it has an intrinsic and emotional value not unlike woodcarving. He's joined in this opinion by Brian Eno and Holger Czukay.

Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry made a contribution that has helped shape music for the last 38 years, be it the early tape music works of Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky at Columbia, and Stockhausen in Germany, the Beatles in their Sgt. Pepper days, or producers Arthur Baker and Martin Rushent today. They owe their genesis to the sounds of a world rearranged by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry.

This article originally appeared in the December 1986 issue of Electronic Musician.

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